By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN (Reuters) - The oppressive world of Communist East Germany was brought back to life in a haunting new film called "Barbara" at the Berlin Film Festival on Saturday, the first of three German productions in the main competition.
A fictional tale of a young doctor banished to the East German provinces because she requested to move to West Germany, the film set in 1980 is a sedate portrait of the Communist country nine years before it imploded when the Berlin Wall fell.
The film by Berlinale veteran director Christian Petzold, teaming up with actress Nina Hoss for a fifth time after she won Berlin's Silver Bear best actress award for "Yella" in 2007, has none of the stirring moments or heart-breaking scenes as in other films about East Germany such as "The Lives of Others."
But "Barbara" nevertheless gave the festival's audience a harrowing reminder of what life was like two decades earlier behind the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall that stood just a few meters to the east of theatres where the Berlinale is based.
"It was a tremendous challenge for me to try recreate that East German atmosphere of 1980," said Hoss, 36. "I didn't grow up in East Germany and didn't know how it felt to always be on guard like that, to always be mistrustful of other people."
The heavy-handed Stasi security police in East Germany with a myriad of informants kept close watch on the country's 17 million people, especially the many thousands who applied to leave to the West or were otherwise deemed enemies of the state.
The film by Petzold, whose parents fled East Germany to West Germany, shows how suffocating that world was where people had to deal with the omnipresent fear their neighbors, co-workers, friends and even spouses might betray them to the Stasi.
"It's not a film about East Germany, it's a film about how people survive in a country that was on its way out," said Petzold, who added that he, like many other Germans, are fascinated by stories about East Germany.
The doctor played by Hoss is a target of Stasi persecution, including regular body cavity searches, because she wants to leave the East to be with her West German lover. But while preparing to flee via the Baltic, she starts to fall in love with an East German doctor whom she is not sure she can trust.
The other two German films competing for Golden Bears in Berlin are "Was bleibt" (Home for the Weekend), a family drama by Hans-Christian Schmid, and "Gnade" (Mercy), a drama set in Norway by Matthias Glasner.
(Reporting By Erik Kirschbaum)